For screening a pool of potential substrates that load carrier domains found in nonribosomal peptide synthetases, large molecule mass spectrometry is shown to be a new, unbiased assay. Combining the high resolving power of Fourier transform mass spectrometry with the ability of adenylation domains to select their own substrates, the mass change that takes place upon formation of a covalent intermediate thus identifies the substrate. This assay has an advantage over traditional radiochemical assays in that many substrates, the substrate pool, can be screened simultaneously. Using proteins on the nikkomycin, clorobiocin, coumermycin A1, yersiniabactin, pyochelin, and enterobactin biosynthetic pathways as proof of principle, preferred substrates are readily identified from substrate pools. Furthermore, this assay can be used to provide insight into the timing of tailoring events of biosynthetic pathways as demonstrated using the bromination reaction found on the jamaicamide biosynthetic pathway. Finally, this assay can provide insight into the role and function of orphan gene clusters for which the encoded natural product is unknown. This is demonstrated by identifying the substrates for two NRPS modules from the pksN and pksJ genes that are found on an orphan NRPS/PKS hybrid cluster from Bacillus subtilis. This new assay format is especially timely for activity screening in an era when new types of thiotemplate assembly lines that defy classification are being discovered at an accelerating rate.
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